Throughout this passage of Matthew, Jesus ups the ante for those who wish to obey Him. Many of you have heard His message before: in the eyes of God, if we hate our brother we have committed murder in our heart; if we lust after someone we have already committed adultery with them. This might seem harsh, severe, or unforgiving at first glance. The thing is, though, God is holy, and deserves this level of righteousness. Acknowledging this fact is how we open ourselves to His unbelievable love.
In a similar spirit, Lent may be a time when we Christians observe fasts, or are just more self-reflective about our sin. Lent serves as a reminder of our own insufficiencies. It behooves us this season leading up to Easter to put on the attitude of Christ, so that we might have more appreciation for the extent of His suffering on our behalf. He did not just die for the murderers, prostitutes, and tax-collectors, but for the jay-walkers, the enviers, and the complainers. To be sure, this is not a call for scrupulosity. Jesus does not intend that we live anxious and guilty about every little sin we commit. Rather, our broadened view of guilt is even more of a reason why we must leave all of our inhibitions, our self-independence, at the foot of the cross. “There is none who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:3)
One might wonder why, if God and His Law are unchangeable, He did not tell us all this, about how he really wants us to live, in the first place. Why do we find this strict approach to sin in the New Testament, but not the Old? The reason, or my best estimation of it: without the knowledge of Christ’s sacrificial intercession for us, humans would simply be crushed under the weight of our sin, rendered incapacitated by the contrast between God’s holy perfection and our own sinful shortcomings. It is not that God changed His standards, but that He gave us the truth as we were ready for it. Only in Christ, through his fulfillment of the Law (Mat. 5:17) can we simultaneously hold in tension the infinite depths of our depravity, and the infinite heights of God’s grace in light of that.
Jesus’ “stricter law” which might be perceived as a tightening of the reigns on His people is really just God giving us a glimpse into His pure heart, to demonstrate His ambitious expectations for us. The great depths we are in and the marvelous heights He would have us reach. Ultimately, God does not ask that we cleanse ourselves of all our sin—our anger, selfishness, sexual immorality—before He will accept us. Instead, it works the other way around. Jesus simultaneously expanded our culpability, and took that extra blame upon His own shoulders. He died for every last sinful thought of ours.
One day, a dignified man, well-educated, wealthy, well-respected—a portrait, I expect, of many of you—begged Jesus to show Him what more he needed to do to inherit the kingdom of heaven. He desired more rules to follow, additional tasks to complete, and tighter regulations to keep, because that was what he was skilled at. In a merit-based world, he had risen to the top. But the kingdom of heaven does not operate in not a merit-based system.
Whenever I read Jesus’ words in Matthew, I feel uncomfortable. I sense the incredible gap between my own desires, thoughts, and actions and those that God would demand of me. I want to ask, “What must I do to inherit the kingdom of heaven?” I desire the familiar self-sufficiency of striving, of running another rat-race. But, given Jesus’ new take on the Law, I am lost. Simply following more rules is clearly out of the question. I won’t be able to do this. Indeed, no one will. God welcomes this helplessness. Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler is His response to all of us: “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Mat. 19:21 ) Hosea 6:6 likewise tells us, “For I [God] desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.“ It is not a matter of bootstrapping ourselves out of the sin that comes so naturally to us. It is only when we let go, give up all our desires and ambitions to God so that He can direct them to His purpose. In the face of our overwhelming tsunami of sin, “What must I do?” can become “Who must I trust?”
Bryce McDonald ’21 is a freshman in Stoughton Hall.